The first day was good. I climbed onto the train at precisely 1:20 pm or so, the platform crowded with rather scruffy-looking white folk who had the unbathed adventuriousness of your average backpacker. It made me a little nostalgic for my time back in 2007 when, finally freed from my Peace Corps responsibilities, I rode the rails from Ulaanbaatar to Bangkok. It was a happy time, but I tempered my memories with the fact that I was very much exhausted, exasperated and sometimes even scared during these journeys. I was 26 at the time and still quite youthful but the more adult yearning for settling down in an apartment with a steady job and a daily schedule that had a satisfying sameness to it was beginning to itch at my soul.
Of course after almost a year of this satisfyingly unadventurous life I began to have another (metaphorical) itch to travel once again. Many of my acquaintances thought it strange that a woman who lives in Mongolia (MONG-GO-LIA!!!!) would be somehow unsatisfied with the mundanity of her life. "You live in friggin' Mongolia, for God's sakes!" When it comes to living and working in Ulaanbaatar, however, the exotic ring of "Mongolia" turns out to be all hat and no cattle. The occasional drunken brawl, pick-pocketing or comically-misguided neo-nazi march aside, Ulaanbaatar is a fantastically comfortable and friendly city. It can, however, become very boring after a few months for someone who is in a committed relationship and has dreams about furthering her education. Outside of the city one can get more than a belly-full of of the adventurous life. The countryside of Mongolia still has a wondrously wild side to it that the sprawl of the city has not yet been able to touch. Still, there is a rather humerous dichotomy to the actual boredom of UB city life and the wide-eyed fascination the name "Mongolia" still evokes from friends who live across the ocean... or even as close by as Korea.
As I sat by the train that early afternoon, I recalled a Blackadder joke.
"Prince George (after having accidently slept with the Duke of Wellington's younger sister and consequently fearing the other man's wrath): I shall flee. How's your French Blackadder?
Blackadder: Parfait monsieur. But I fear that France will not be far enough.
Prince George: Well, how's your Mongolian?
Blackadder: (speaking something vaguely Chinese-y that is clearly not Mongolian). But I fear Wellington is a close personal friend of the chief Mongol. They were at Eton together.
Watching this episode in college during my clique's brief, powerful Blackadder phase I thought nothing much of this joke. Watching this episode again on a downloaded copy on a friend's computer in Ulaanbaatar we all crowed over the fact that the producers of "Blackadder" clearly did not know or even have the vaguest idea of what Mongolian sounded like and were betting that their audience didn't either. Also, to paraphrase J.Jaques - the writer of the webcomic "Questionable Content"- the word "Mongol" is intrinsically funny (to Western ears). So really the Blackadder script's use of the word "Mongolian" was just a ploy to squeeze a bit of extra zing out of a laugh. I do indeed get a giggle out of the idea of an 18th century Mongolian tribal chief playing wickets at Eton.
My friend Andrew (nothisrealname... you know the drill), a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer who was watching the episode with me at the time, defended the historical merits of the dialogue by saying that the vaguely Chinese-sounding dialect that Rowan Atkinson implied was Mongolian in the episode may not have been entirely inaccurate. "Mongolia was ruled by the Manchus, the northern Chinese tribes, during the 1700s," he said, "Any Mongolian tribal leader would have had to have been able to speak the Manchurian dialect of Chinese (which is tonal and thus at least vaguely similar to Blackadder's 'Mongolian' sounds) in order to communicate with the district warlord. Any European traveling in the region would have been well served in communicating with the Mongolian population if he had spoken Manchurian."
I stroked my chin. "You're right. The 'Blackadder' producers must have been well aware of this when they penned the joke. Rowan Atkinson is clearly speaking a form of archaic Manchurian Chinese in that episode. I apologize for the quickness of my mockery." Or maybe I said "Whatever." I'm not good at memorizing past conversations.
But to return to my main point, Mongolia is sometimes not as exotic as the name suggests. It was time to take a break and travel, something that I hadn't done since a wonderful trip to Alaska back in July 2009. When I boarded the train at the correct time, figured out which bunk was mine and made my peace with the fact that two of the three compartment-mates with whom I would be traveling in a confined space for the period of the next five days clearly had not bathed since they had entered the region of Mongolia two months earlier... I settled down with a copy of Paul Theroux's "The Great Railway Bazaar" and prepared for a reasonably pleasant journey.
At the beginning of "The Great Railway Bazaar" Paul Theroux wrote a most picturesque chapter on what it was like to travel by train across Yugoslavia in 1975. I have never been to Yugoslavia nor the year 1975 but Mr. Theroux was so thorough in terms of description and overall conveyance of atmosphere that I believed I knew exactly what he meant.
Red peppers, as crimson and pointed as clusters of poinsettias, dried in the sun outside farm cottages in districts where farming consisted of men stumbling after oxen dragging wooden plows and harrows, or occasionally wobbling on bicycles loaded with hay bales. Herdsmen were not simply herdsmen; they were sentries guarding little stocks from marauders: four cows watched by a woman, three gray pigs driven by a man with a truncheon, scrawny chickens watched by scrawny children.... There was a woman in a field pausing to tip a water bottle to her mouth; she swallowed and bent from the waist to continue tying up cornstalks. Large ochre squashes sat plumply in fields or withering on vines; people priming pumps and swinging buckets out of wells on long poles; tall narrow haystacks and pepper fields in so many stages of ripeness I first took them for flower gardens. It is a feeling of utter quietness, deep rural isolation the train briefly penetrates.
The train I was traveling on was not going through such scenes of picturesque poverty... or rather the poverty it was traveling through was certainly picturesque but not in such an old world style.
Paul Theroux got on the Trans-Siberian in Nakhodka. Technically Mr. Theroux got on a connecting train going from Nakhodka to Khabarovosk. When he boarded the train it was the dead of winter... a far cry from the June day in Ulaanbaatar when I set off for Moscow. About 4,000 kilometers lie between the capital of Mongolia and Moscow yet for some reason I've always imagined Moscow and Beijing to be at equidistant lengths from UB. There is the UB-Beijing train and, of course, the UB-Moscow train. The UB train to Beijing is just a two-day journey. During the trip you get all the landscapes you can realistically cram into a two-day period (deserts, mountains, lush farms, booming cities) and are able to pop off the train just with it starts to get boring. Unfortunately it's 5 days from Ulaanbaatar to Moscow. The Trans-Siberian shows no such mercy.
My train compartment was certainly prerevolution. The car itself had the look of a narrow lounge in a posh London pub. The passage floor was carpeted; there were mirrors everywhere; the polished brass fittings were reflected in varnished wood; poppies were etched on the glass globes of the pairs of lamps beside the mirrors, lighting the tasseled curtains of red velvet and the roman numerals on the compartment doors.Mine was VII. I had an easy chair on which crocheted antimacassars had been neatly pinned, a thick rug on the floor and another one in the toilet (blogger's note: Mr. Theroux, in this context, is probably using the European definition of toilet, which is to say the entire room encompassing the sink, shower, toilet, mirror, etc. Theroux, while American by birth, usually employs British turns of phrase in his writing and perhaps in his speaking as well though this blogger has not had the privilege of hearing him. Be that as it may, the reader of this blog may rest assured that Mr. Theroux's toilet bowl in and of itself was most likely NOT carpeted) I punched my pillow. It was full of warm goose feathers. (blogger's note: As was mine too, to my surprise. My train pillow on the Transsiberian was acres better than any pillow I have at home) And I was done. I walked up and down the room, rubbing my hands, then set out pipes and tobacco, slippers, my new Japanese bathrobe, and poured myself a large vodka. I threw myself on the bed, congratulating myself that 6,000 miles lay between Natchodkha and Moscow, the longest train journey in the world.
Oooh..... how that Belgian fellow needs a good scrubbing! His outward hygiene obviously worked in inverse proportion to the purity of his soul for this man (Verne was not his name) was an extraordinarily good-natured and kind-hearted person. There is a certain species of backpacker- almost always European in origin and usually dreadlocked- that radiates a benignant kindness whenever you first meet them. It may be the way that they manage to be Buddhist without being arrogant about it (a trick most white American Buddhists have yet to master in my experience), it may be the fact that their faces tend to have weather lines but no lines from negative emotions.... the faces of people who have been to the poorest places on Earth and know that only a peaceful, pragmatically kind personality can help them survive. The sort of people with whom you desperately want to be best friends despite the protests from your olfactory organs... which you learn to ignore after an hour anyway.
The train jerked into movement. We slowly moved away from the UB international train station and on towards Russia. We passed the unlovely-even-by-UB-standards region around the railway station. We chugged by the Moscva hotel that was located two kilometers from the station ("Oh look," said Verne's traveling companion, a handsome British man who was not named John, "There's Moscow. We're there already!" "Oh, that's it?" I asked in mock disappointment, "I paid two hundred dollars just to get there?" "Yeah," John replied, "I guess you should have read the fine print on your ticket a bit more carefully") and moved forward towards the North.... though I could not help but notice that the train apparently took the same way out of the station that the UB-Beijing train did. Would we be turning at any point so as to not end up in China? Or was it the China-bound train that ended up turning at some point? I did not know.
This entry will be completed later.